I know I should probably be more focused on the robot part of Crown Coffee’s “Ella.” Ella is, after all, a robot barista. But watching a video of Ella in action that the company posted to Linkedin, I can’t stop staring at the machine’s screen. It’s transparent but still displays messages about orders. The words just float in front of the articulating arm that swirls around making coffee.
That transparent OLED screen is made by LG, but as Crown Digital IO Founder and CEO Keith Tan told me by phone this week “It was just a prototype. LG wasn’t even selling them.” Somehow, Tan convinced LG to give him a pre-production version of the display, to which Crown added touch capabilities.
Based in Singapore, Crown Coffee started off in 2016 as a regular chain of human-powered cafes before Tan got the idea to add robotics into the service mix last year. Ella comes in three different sizes and can serve a variety of coffee, tea and iced drinks. It also makes up to 200 coffees per hour. Drinks can be ordered and paid for via touchscreen on the machine or with a mobile app.
So far, Ella has just one installation in Singapore and has made a number of appearances serving coffee at large events.
Ella joins the ranks of other robot baristas around the world including Briggo, Cafe X, TrueBird, MontyCafe, Rozum Cafe and Fibbee. They all offer the same basic value proposition: good coffee served quickly in high-traffic areas. But in the age of COVID-19, Ella, and all of the robot baristas also offer something more appealing than a faster latte. They offer a contactless way to get your morning joe.
Robots, as I’ve been repeating for the past couple of months, don’t get sick. In an age of social distancing and facemasks, that lack of human touch could be appealing to a global population that has watched a viral outbreak sicken and take so many lives.
Crown Coffee is currently bootstrapped, and the company plans to both own and operate its machines as well as lease them out with a rev-share to outside locations. Like other robot barista companies, Crown Coffee is targeting high-volume areas like airports and train stations.
Unlike a lot of its competitors, Tan says that coffee is just the beginning. “All this groundwork will evolve Ella into other use cases like food,” Tan said. “The lowest hanging fruit is coffee, tea and soft serve.”
While there is a lot of competition in the robo-barista world, it’s still pretty spread out around the world. Given the small footprint of each of these machines, and how many people love their java, the automated coffee space doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.
In the meantime, I’ll be watching out for Ella, and then watching that screen.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post inaccurately stated that LG added the touch capabilities to the screen. This technology was added by Crown. We regret the error.